Feature: Fruits of their labor

SOFT members proudly showcase their bountiful produce at their weekly farmer's market.

They’re SOFT all the way, and proud of it.  That’s true of students in the Sustainable and Organic Farm Training (SOFT) program, which has finally made the leap from two off-campus sites to the middle of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.  Established in 2007 by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, the program – one of the largest in the state run by students and faculty – has blossomed into a harvest of vegetable crops, fruit trees and a bountiful herb garden.

Initially, the collegiate cultivation took place on a one-acre site at the UH Research Station in Waimanalo and at the Magoon research facility in Mānoa, giving students a true hands-on experience in horticulture, pest control, nutrient management, business and marketing.  In the initial start-up stage, several participants toured college farms on the mainland to help them plot out and develop a sustainable farm environment of their own. They returned with a bounty of information, and then applied their newfound knowledge to create a successful campus farm program that strives for smart, efficient and sustainable agriculture.

On most weekends, SOFT volunteers, or SOFTies as they like to call themselves, could be found hard at work at either of the two initial farm plots. The crops are harvested regularly and sold at a weekly farmer’s market on campus.  The profits are then used to purchase more plant material, tools and supplies.

But while the farms served as valuable training grounds for the students, the University’s larger campus community was unaware of their growing prowess. “We wanted to have something visible for people to see so they could learn more about our group,” said Gabe Sachter-Smith, a recent graduate of the Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences (TPSS) program who will be pursuing his master’s degree in the Fall. “Establishing on-campus plots is also easier to sustain and can help promote our work by acting as living billboards.”

In cooperation with landscaping manager Roxanne Adams, the green-thumbed students came up with plans to bring sustainable farming to the middle of campus. Their tireless efforts came to fruition this past Spring, and right around Earth Day in April, when they established a plot on the grassy stage of the Sustainability Courtyard.  SOFT volunteers dug up the rich Mānoa earth to create what they envision to be a mini edible garden, planting everything from sunflowers, cassava, basil and rosemary, to sweet potato, taro, coco yam and lemon grass, to name a few.  “It is our hope that this installation will encourage more student involvement,” said SOFTie Jeana Cadby, a senior in the TPSS program. “We look forward to selling these publicly grown veggies and herbs soon.”

SOFT also has plans to create another garden behind the Art Building.  Dubbed “banana walkway,” the plot will feature different varieties of bananas as well as some intercrops such as jicama, squash, beans and sweet potato.  Observed Sachter-Smith, “Since it’s a living system, it is always changing and the many different crops grow at their own pace. We will constantly be rotating and replanting crops to ensure an aesthetically pleasing landscape while maintaining even production. We’ll always have something ready to harvest.”

One person who couldn’t be more thrilled with the student-driven effort is Ted Radovich, a CTAHR specialist in sustainable and organic farming systems, and SOFT’s proud faculty advisor. “With support from CTAHR, UH Landscaping and others, the SOFTies have really taken the initiative to develop self-learning opportunities for themselves and other students,” he said. “They’ve put science and theory learned in the classroom into practice by growing and marketing food.”

To enjoy the bounty of their harvest, come to the SOFTies’ weekly produce sale on Mondays from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. in front of the St. John building on Maile Way. Plus, always being sought are volunteers who have an interest in developing skills in sustainable agriculture, and who are willing to work on the three farms. Summer internships are also available. To learn more, send an email to soft@hawaii.edu or visit the website at http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/sustainag/soft/.

Top photo: Apple bananas are among the many organic fruits and vegetables grown and sold by SOFT.

Garden shot

CTAHR Workers